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With So Many Unhappy People Around, It’s a Very Apt Time to Think Anew about What Happiness Is and How to Make it Happen. (Even Though All the “Be Happy!” Talk and Techniques Aren’t Always Enough)

In the early 1990s, we traveled around Europe together for several weeks. Mostly by train, a few times by car, as we produced business seminars. He was a brainy, ambitious, sparely worded chap. A sly sense of humor: dry, cowboy-ish. Very good English, too, polished during an extended sojourn in America—he once addressed the downtown Los Angeles Rotary Club—but still clearly accented.

I have no idea why, or even how, he killed himself. The terse account on the Internet of his demise had to be run through Babel Fish because I don’t read the language. What was originally written was short and circumspect, and the machine translation is even less revealing.

It is probably safe to say that my ex-seminar-producing partner felt deeply unhappy and concluded that the paralyzing stalemate that his living had become wasn’t going to yield. So, tragically, he ended his life.

There are signs everywhere that a lot of people are unhappy. And there plenty of people around who are asking why and suggesting steps for them to take and, increasingly, for their governments to take, to make happiness more accessible and widespread. Some are claiming that in places like the U.S., the United Kingdom and Germany, happiness has been stagnating for years.

An “enlightened” idea that bombed—for a while
As is often the case on matters of the public good, Europeans seem to be ahead of Americans and much of the rest of the world in their levels of official wonderment about how to help people be happier.

In Britain, for example, there is Sir Richard Layard, the economist sometimes known as the “happiness czar.” Layard never misses a chance to campaign vigorously for his Principle of the Greatest Happiness.

He explains, “This says that I should aim to produce the most happiness I can in the world and, above all, the least misery.”

The idea sounds irrefutable and self-evidently right. And actually, it has been around for almost three centuries. Jurist Jeremy Bentham promoted it about the time America was born. As with Layard, Bentham advocated actions that increase everyone’s pleasure and decrease everyone’s pain. The concept caught on widely—and was called the most noble discovery of the Enlightenment.

But then, in one of history’s extraordinary ironies, no less than Bentham’s own godson, whom he raised, reversed all that, at least for a time. John Stuart Mill tried living his young life by such a precept, and it nearly killed him. Mill was contemplating suicide when he discovered the Romantics—the Coleridges and Wordsworths—and came to this conclusion, “Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.”

Gross national product is out, bonheur is in
Mill concluded that happiness is like a crab—it approaches you sideways. He thought deliberately pursuing happiness was a deal-killer, a fool’s errand.

To measure happiness, you must first decide what happiness is, Mill concluded. He thought happiness is impossible to pin down. He put in a good word for pain, too. For example, falling in love often brings pain, but it is a part of any rich life. So Bentham’s single-minded “principle of utility” faded in economics and politics, buried by Mill’s “let happiness find you” arguments.

That was then, though. And this is now. There has come to be what is sometimes called “the science of happiness.” Even governments are starting to move into the picture or make noises like they’d like to.

In France last week, President Nicholas Sarcozy’s top-drawer commission to study what governments should be doing to make people happier released its report. Essentially, it called on governments to “help people produce the most happiness you can in the world and, above all, the least misery.” From now on, Sarcozy says that economic progress in France will be measured not by GNP (gross national product) but by “bonheur” (happiness). “The [banking] crisis doesn’t only make us free to imagine other models, another future, another world. It obliges us to do so,” he said, happily.

So we’ve come full circle. And if you are trying to decide how to be happy, a very full circle it is. It can be a very confusing one, too. Because neoBenthamism has become very John-Stuart-Mill-like in its variety. That is, it has a kind of anything goes, laissez faire spirit about it.

Prescribed routes to happiness that take many paths
There is happiness psychologist Dr. Robert Holden, who says he can make happy optimists of clinical depressives simply by getting them to laugh or simulate laugher for 20 minutes a day and think positive thoughts all day long. Hypnotist Paul McKenna’s “Endorphin Button” exercise is quicker. You recall happy times, enhance the colors in your memory and squeeze your thumb and index finger together five times.

Neuroscientist Dr. Nick Lavidis had an epiphany while strolling through Yosemite National Park. The smell of freshly cut grass produced pleasant feelings. So Lavidis now markets a room spray that—you guessed it!—releases a chemical like that in grass cuttings. Lavidis says it stimulates the hippocampus, improving our memory functions and good feelings.

Sociologist Nicholas Christakis and political scientist James Fowler believe social relationships can cause happiness to be passed from person to person like they were contagious viruses. They got the idea by studying the famed Framingham Heart Study, which started following 15,000 people back in 1948. Your happiness can not only affect your friends but also friends of your friends. And get this: it may affect your friends’ friends, even if it didn’t affect your friends! (Unhappily, bad habits are also transmitted this way, too. Like obesity, smoking or using harmful drugs.)

In his book on college students and achievement, Derek Bok, the former Harvard University president, flagged three consequences of poor health as producing long-lasting unhappiness: mental illness (notably depression), chronic pain and sleep deprivation (notably insomnia). He said these “afflict a surprising number of people and have a marked and continuing effect on well-being.’’

Speaking of Harvard University, a study there has been tracking hundreds of students for more than 70 years. Researchers have concluded that seven major factors are most likely to produce happy old-timers: mature adaptations (or the ability to respond well to problems), education, a stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, exercise and maintaining a healthy weight.

The “I’m OK, You’re OK” view of happiness
Numerous studies have suggested that childless couples experience more enjoyable times and fewer stressful ones than couples with children. The enjoyable-times penalty from having children is even greater for women. But if producing successful, happy, productive children makes you happy, having a family is a happiness no-brainer.

And that’s the anti-Benthamic rub to bringing any real coherence to the happiness movement: one person’s happiness maker may be another person’s pleasure eraser.

All of which causes experts like Dr. Caroline West to adjudge the Bentham-versus-Mill controversy a wash. West teaches a popular course called “The Philosophy of Happiness” at the University of Sydney. She says:

“We’re inclined to think that there is something that happiness really is. If we only knew which of enjoyment and aspiration-fulfillment happiness really was, then we would know what to be basing these and other important life decisions on. The problem is that there isn’t an answer to the question of what happiness really is. And there’s certainly no answer that everyone will agree with.

“What one person means by ‘happiness’ can be completely different to what the next person means, far more different than we commonly imagine…. Happiness can be used to refer a momentary sensation, such as pleasure or enjoyment. Or it might refer to an enduring mood, such as tranquility or contentment. Or believing that one’s desires are being achieved, or the actual achievement of one’s desires. Or believing one’s life as a whole is going well, in terms of one’s own priorities. Or leading a life that is considered to be—from some objective standpoint—worthwhile.”

I would wish that my former seminar partner and I could have talked about some of this. In his right mind, he would have enjoyed the discussion. On the trains of Europe in those yesteryear travels, we talked about a lot of things. I particularly remember one animated discussion on a long trip between Mannheim and the Polish border about John Galt’s radio speech in Atlas Shrugged. There was much, we both agreed, in the speech that spoke to our own sensibilities and ideals.

What I would liked to have shared with my friend

If he had asked on those trips about my personal thoughts on being happy, I’d probably have said things like this:

Remember that happiness ebbs and flows. People have a range of happiness and move up and down in it. Of course, some are simply congenitally and seemingly forever joyous. And then the happiness capacity of others appears to vacillate somewhere between a passing break in the clouds and a murderous funk. The rest of us are somewhere in between and usually make do.

Brain chemistry is important but it isn’t everything. If you need antidepressants to ward off danger to yourself, hurry on to your physician. But remember that time can be a potent healer, too. And that learning is not a pain-free zone. An irreducible side effect of the good-feelings-from-the-medicine-cabinet drugs is that they close certain self-correcting and insight-filled windows on the mind and soul.

Few actions in life encourage expanded happiness and satisfaction more than “willing” oneself to initiate positive self-change. It’s both an art and a science. A key element is often pro-actively seeking out increased connectivity of the right kind—finding people you can be close to or at least be around who don’t mind you being happier.

Find your own happiness rhythms and honor them. Give into the highs and enjoy them to the fullest. Accept the lows and understand that they are almost certain to pass. Then view and treat the in-betweens as the times when you are cleaning up the messes left over from previous train wrecks or wrong track choices and preparing for the arrival of the next great moments.

Understand that if you find happiness, it’s going to have to be on your terms. Happiness is not a pure quality. It is a concoction of tradeoffs negotiated between the self that you ideally wish to be and the self that bumps its nose against a surprise-prone, often uncooperative world every day. You need to find your own personal recipe for responding to this mix, or it will never work or taste right.

The current moment can be a real shrew. It lies a lot. It may profess to own you soul and marrow and insist it will never let go. When it says that, look it in the eye and spit in its face. And remind yourself that in a few hours, or a few days, or a few months, you will most likely be restored and healed but the current moment will be nothing but a smear on a neuron, if that.

Get really, really good at the inner art of cleaning the slate. I’m not into meditating but I’m told by those who are that this can be very effective mental squeegee. What I often do is switch gears. Spring the unexpected on my mind. Read the unpredictable book. Watch another culture’s films. Visit a restaurant in a part of town that our neighbors or usual crowd wouldn’t think of being seen in. Or sometimes, just book a trio of big Ryder or Penske rental trucks and move half-way across the U.S. And watch from the corner of my eyes for the happiness crab to again sidle into view.

What my erstwhile European colleague and friend—may he gently rest in peace—would have thought of John Stuart Mill’s advice in those final moments, I have no idea. When you can see no light at the tunnel’s end, it probably doesn’t help to be told to forget happiness and just get on with living the best way you know how. But it’s probably good advice at most other times. Happiness may show up anyway. And even if it doesn’t, you’ll be a lot less unhappy at not having found all the happiness you think you deserve.

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One Comment

  1. Bruce Rosove says:

    Hello Dudley,

    I enjoyed your piece on happiness. It provided some perspective I had not perceived previously. However, I was surprised that you did not speak about the work of Martin Seligman who is the father of Positive Psychology and who has done a lot to determine what makes people happy. He suggests that there are three routes to happiness:

    Pleasure: Which is not lasting
    Engagement: Becoming engrossed in activities in which one is skilled and has “strength”. And’
    Meaningful Life: Using one or more strengths to work towards outcomes that are for the greater good.

    He suggests that the last two can provide ongoing happiness. Pleasure is for the moment only although pleasureable activities can add to the enjoyment of an engaged or meaningful life.

    Another author Sonja Lyubomirsky and others have written that our life circumstances contribute at most 10% to our happiness. She says 50% of our happiness is determined by our genes and the other 40% is determined by our intentional activities. Back to engagement and meaningful life.

    So the key to happiness is finding activities or projects that either engage us or provide meaning to out lives.

    In that sense, happiness is a byproduct of life’s activities. One truly can not find happiness without effort. And activities taken on just to achieve happiness likely will not provide any lasting pleasure. Activities done to truly use one’s gifts or, better still, to use one gifts to create a better world are the only route to happiness.

    Let me close by suggesting that we in North America have come to believe that the route to happiness is through material wealth. This has led us to overconsume to the point where our very Biosphere is threatened.

    If we can learn that once we have enough to eat shelter and security, our happiness will not increase with more stuff. Perhaps we can let go of the urge to consume ever more. If we stop soon enough, perhaps we can keep from destroying the very planet we depend on for our sustenance. Have a look at my Blog

    Keep well! I enjoy your writing!

    Bruce Rosove


    Hi, Bruce,

    few things bring me more happiness than being able to provide people with some perspective they had not perceived previously. I’ll keep working at it. Might be able to do it for you again. Thanks for writing!


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